Recently, having taken a big break from Street Fighter IV and Dark Souls to do some real life stuff, I spent a lot of my in-between time playing a game I’d always meant to play but had never found the opportunity to obtain.
After Persona 4 Arena came out, it piqued my interest in the Persona series of games, and I nabbed Persona 3 FES from a friend.
You see, before I got into fighting games in the degree I’m into now, I cut my teeth on JRPGs like Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, and the Mother series of games.
Nowadays, people prefer full-RPG type of games – Oblivion, Skyrim, and Fallout come to mind. There’s plenty of choice, a prominent replay factor in each of them, and huge, detailed worlds waiting to be explored. JRPG games tend to be more story-oriented, with style taking a precedent over substance, and traditional turn based or ATB battles being the norm over VATS or real time combat.
The fact that JRPGs have declined in quality is lamentable because I’ve always been a fan of JRPGs and, for me, they are not without their nostalgia factor, even if they’re in a polished or refined form like Persona 3 FES is. Of course, JRPGs didn’t fade away for no reason. There are a couple of factors that contributed to their receding popularity – but there are also solutions to those problems… ways future games can improve.
Where problems begin: no end in sight
First of all, the length. I’m 120 hours deep in Persona 3 and still haven’t beat it. I’m on the last boss, but after all that time I’m still not strong enough to defeat him. Totally unnecessary. It’s high time I moved on to different games and my motivation to play Persona 3 is nearly zero, knowing all I’m going to do is grind so I can be strong enough to beat the game. But I’m a masochist and I won’t be able to live with myself if I’ve started a game and haven’t finished it (and to Persona 3′s credit, I really dig the story and want to see the ending).
Final Fantasy XIII actually did grinding right. I never had to grind for any fight in the game and the last boss was challenging, but not a straight up level check. There’s no challenge involved in repeatedly fighting weak enemies for several hours just so a couple numbers are high enough for you to deal with some other numbers. Strategy and adaptation should be the basic principles of any RPG difficulty curve – this is to suggest that maybe traditional “leveling up” is outdated and should be replaced with something else.
Possible solution: Instead of levels being unlocked by gaining a gradually increasing amount of experience, they could be unlocked by completing challenges. Coupled with an in-game ‘suggested level’ indicator, you would be able to take on higher level challenges at a lower level, just like in traditional RPGs, but in the event story progression is locked by a difficult fight, you could level up to that point by taking on unique challenges instead of the same few groups of enemies like in RPGs of old.
… How was I supposed to know that?
Having to use a guide or playing through an already long game several times to 100% it and see everything is another factor common of JRPGs that I have to nitpick. Were it not for the fact that I had a lot of free time this summer, beating this game would take months, and when you use a guide basically all of the challenge and ingenuity you apply towards strategy disappears. And because of Persona’s day-by-day format, any time you do something during the daytime that lets you collect new Personas, that time is gone forever, as there are a finite number of days. You can’t take as long as you wish to go back and collect things you may have missed or finish quests that were left incomplete. It’s easy to waste time trying to figure out how the game works, quickly sealing away the possibility of finishing the game all the way through.
This isn’t a problem with games like Final Fantasy where you eventually gain something similar to an airship that lets you retrace every step you’ve taken in the journey, but it’s something to keep in mind when players want to platinum or 100% games. In my view, 100%ing a game should be less about repetition and more about completing difficult challenges and unlocking new content. In general, filling a game with obtuse easter eggs that could never be guessed without paying Prima isn’t the right way to create “content.”
Games can have good stories, too
Developers would be doing gamers a favor if they made more of an effort to establish coherent stories and interesting dialogue in RPGs, especially if they’re rife with cutscenes like FFXIII was. Too often I found myself making fun of Sazh, Snow, Hope, and the girls in FFXIII instead of sympathizing with their plight. Clearly that wasn’t their objective, but when everyone on screen continually muses about their feelings or makes melodramatic, meaningless statements almost as a rule, it’s hard to put yourself through the game. You can’t enjoy a jRPG for the battles alone. FFXIII had the battles going for it, but JRPGs are usually defined by both story and battle systems.
With that said, in games like FFXIII cutscenes are supposed to be a major part of the game, but if they’re all boring or insipid like in FFXIII they are basically dead space. Not every game can have a great story, which is fine – but it’s time for games to move beyond traditional put-down-the-controller cinematics and find a way to integrate them in a manner that keeps them interesting and allows them to be involved in the gameplay.
Possible solution: cinematic fight cutscenes. To get a clearer idea of what I’m referring to, here’s a Resident Evil 4 “cutscene fight” that makes sure you’re still on your toes even during a part of the game that is heavily cinematic.
It’s out of the norm for JRPGs to feature fast button sequences, but since the genre is stagnant, can an attempt at moving beyond tropes really hurt? Cutscenes should find a way to allow inputs and actions to influence the dialogue or events taking place in the cutscene. For example, if in a traditional cutscene the party is sitting there talking, you should be able to do something other than just put the controller down and watch.
Most JRPGs provide you with a protagonist whom you name and give some basic characteristics, but for the genre to be revitalized the trope of the set-in-stone traditional hero should evolve into something more unique and flexible, and cutscenes where your character can either listen attentively, contribute to the dialogue, or go off and do his own thing would be fresh for the genre.
Optimistic about the future
What I’m suggesting is a game that does away with the tedium involved with grinding, slow cutscenes, and drawn-out length. The elements that really make JRPGs great can remain intact – interesting dialogue, characters, and story, with engaging battles, and unforgettable music (I adore JRPG music).
Some of the changes, like dynamic cutscenes and structured challenges would also provide new room for experimentation. A greater problem is that JRPGs are still typically made by Japanese companies, who are usually pretty reluctant to change, but I use JRPG as a means of distinguishing games into their own genre, not to specifically label them as ‘Japanese’. An American company can make a JRPG as good as any; the problems and possible solutions are inherent to the genre itself.
With that said, I’m passionate about this topic and while I understand most people don’t typically have JRPGs on the brain nowadays, I’m interested to hear what people have to say about the genre. So come at me, bros! Let’s talk. Make a comment with some other suggestions and let’s see how we can bring the genre back to prominence.